On December 24th, 1944
On Sunday December 24th, 1944, upper continental high pressure brought an end to an impenetrable fog that engulfed the Ardennes and Eifel, which had begun on December 16th. Von Rundstedt, a German commander, penetrated the American lines and proceeded towards the Meuse River. In the town of Fraiture, we heard artillery fire aimed at Werbomont, a nearby village. We were scared!
Yesterday, on the 23rd, some 400 four-engine bombers were sent to bomb a network of railroad lines, which were supplying the German offensive in the Ardennes. However, the effort was only partially effective, since clouds covered the objective.
On the day before the first Christmas Eve after our liberation, the sky was very clear, and the sun shined on 40 centimeters (16 inches) of snow. The allies decided upon the most formidable aerial operation of all the war: 2,046 multi-engine bombers left their bases in England. With them, it was necessary to send 853 American fighter-escorts, 376 medium-bombers with escorts, 1,157 fighter-bombers, and 1,100 British R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] fighter-bombers. This armada passed over the Meuse River, and then over the towns of Huy and Amay. At the France/Belgium border, the gigantic armada split up into three groups, each with different objectives.
The leader of a group of 100 "Flying Fortresses" of the 487th bomb group was B-17 #44-8444, a brand new plane, plated in duralumin (an aluminum alloy) no painted in camouflage style. With a wingspan of 32 meters (96 feet), and a weight of 32 tons fully loaded, the B-17 carried two tons of bombs for a distance of 1100 kilometers. With 12 .50 caliber heavy machine guns, the B-17 earned her name of "Flying Fortress." The navigator of this particular B-17, the lead plane, had the job of guiding the entire squadron towards Babenhaussen, Germany, to an air base between Darmstadt and Frankfurt that housed Focke-Wulf 190 fighters of Major Schroder of the Luftwaffe.
The crew of this B-17 consisted of :
* Brigadier General Castle, squadron commander
* 1st Lieutenant Harriman, pilot
* 1st Lieutenant Claude L. Rowe, co-pilot (but manned the tail machine gun on this flight).
* 1st Lieutenant Henry MacArty, navigator
* 1st Lieutenant Paul L. Biri, bombardier (located in the nose of the plane)
* Technical Sergeant Q.W. Jeffers, engineer
* 1st Lieutenant B.S. Procopio, radar operator
* Captain N.S. Auer, an extra, experienced navigator assigned to the lead plane
* Staff Sergeant Lowel B. Hudson, machine-gunner
* Technical Sergeant Lawrence H. Swain, radio operator
At the town of Amay, mechanical problems began. The outside port engine sprouted an oil leak, and eventually caused a loss in airspeed. Then Brigadier General Frederick Castle passed command to the next lead plane.
It was 12:30 when this Fortress left formation from the left hand side, and flew at a low altitude over the crossroads of Comblain-au-Pont and Saint-Severin. The American fighters were not at the rendez-vous (meeting point) to protect the bombers. Three German Focke-Wulf fighters attacked, disabling both port engines. Lieutenant Harriman made the order to abandon ship. MacArty, Jeffers, and Auer bailed out over the crossroads of Nandrin-Werbomont. The Army Air Force report did not speak of Procopio, Swain, Hudson, nor Rowe, but they bailed out together; the eyewitness accounts state that 6-7 parachutists appeared. Biri, the bombardier, prepared to follow, but was asked to wait by Harriman, who had been ordered to bail out by Brigadier General Castle, but could not locate his parachute. Brigadier General Castle remained with the plane in order to direct it away from civilian population for its doomed crash landing. The plane abruptly went into a spiral dive, and Biri bailed out, injuring a knee on landing, and was found and taken in by the Neyrinck family of La Croix Andre. The plane crashed near the castle of Englebermont and the Sotrez farm. The explosion covered 200 meters (600 feet) leaving a trail of metal fragments and human remains. A total of six B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 487th Bomb Group were downed in the region of Condroz-Ourthe-Ambleve on December 24th.
We received a letter from the United States that had followed an extraordinary course: a Mr. Russel Neu, the only surviving member of a B-17 crew of the 487th, that was downed South of Comblain-au-Pont, as recalled by Mr. and Mrs. Foisson of Poulseur. Mr. Neu received, after the war, a letter asking how he was doing. The letter was written in French, of which he could not read, so he never read the letter, nor had it translated. It was not until 1994, 50 years later, that a person by the name of Mark Baganz began researching the flight of the B-17 of which Mr. Neu was a crewmember. He found this letter and translated it, and it is this version that we recently received by email. How many testimonies are still yet to appear?
An eyewitness of the aerial combat.
The president of the tourist information office of Fraiture, an eyewitness of the aerial combat that took place over Fraiture-en-Condroz, recounted what he saw on this day at 12:30pm:
"This 24th day of December in 1944, at about midday, we were in a classroom of the school at Fraiture with my parents, some friends, and some 20 American soldiers currently presiding over civil affairs. Not only was it an enchanting moment, but a great happiness engulfed us: it was finished - the German soldiers and Von Rundstedt were gone. We looked, non-stop and without tiring, at the hundreds of planes that continually passed over us as they glistened in the sun. Suddenly, a German fighter appeared flying so low over Herberin that is seemed to be shaving the ground. It came from the direction of Seny and then aimed upward like an arrow at the B-17's. Soon many other German fighters joined the hunt, and a tremendous aerial battle began in the direction of Xhos. Machine gun fire blazed everywhere. In spite of the danger, no one thought of turning back. We watched dumbfoundedly, and wondered why there were no American fighter escorts that normally went with the bombers as far into Germany as they could."
"Suddenly a Fortress made a steep, 180 degree turn to the left while heavily trailing smoke, and then several white mushrooms appeared - parachutes; some of the crew had bailed out. We counted six, and then the plane went into a tailspin and exploded, but another chute opened as the plane came apart. All of this happened very quickly. A part of the fuselage fell at Baugnee, and a wing at the cemetery of Nandrin). After several seconds, there was a violent explosion. The B-17 had fallen over an area of several hundred meters near the castle of Englebermont and La Croix Andre. My uncle, Theo Morelle, went rapidly to the site, and has often described this astounding sight: human remains were hanging in the trees, an immense crater and scrap metal went for 200 meters (600 feet). He also often spoke of two boots he found that still had the feet of the unfortunate airman inside. The parents of Brigadier General Castle and of Lieutenant Harriman had asked that the remains be buried together since the two were unidentifiable".
"Our memories of these events are precise, because it is impossible to forget them, even after 50 years. The aviators who bailed out slowly descended towards a village. We saw a failing parachute, which was maybe on fire, descending rapidly on Moulin. This had to have been Lieutenant Swain. Certainly there are some other witnesses who know this event."
"Over our heads an abominable action took place. A German Focke-Wulf 190 fighter made a long circle, and returned to fire upon one of the parachutes descending towards us. We distinctly saw the poor fellow being jarred around by machine gun fire that was hitting him; his parachute was also being hit, and it began to descend more rapidly towards the countryside of Seny. In the schoolhouse, there were cries of horror and rage. The American soldiers proceeded to get into their jeeps and rush towards Seny. Henry Huysman was the first to arrive at the site. He lifted up the parachute and found the airman covered in blood, as he was fatally wounded. Personally, behind a "command car," I saw the body of Lieutenant Claude L. Rowe wrapped in his parachute".
"Jules Lejeune hurried to the "tige de Terwagne" where another parachutist was hanging in a tree. Upon Jules arrival, the parachutist, being prudent, drew his pistol and held it in aim at Jules until the jeeps arrived. I don't know the name of this American, who, after being rescued by the American soldiers of "civil affairs," came to our house to recuperate. His face was lightly burned. We hope that our American friends can locate him."
What happened to the 10 crewmembers?
* Brigadier General Castle was killed in the explosion of the plane at Englebermont.
* Lieutenant Harriman, pilot, never found his parachute. He tried to jump with Paul Biri, but there was not time.
* Lieutenant Paul Biri waited for his pilot before the opened door of the plane. He was thrown out when the plane went into a tailspin, and was the last person to escape before the plane disintegrated. With an injured knee, he recovered at the house of the Neyrinck family under their care. One of the daughters believes that she saw his parachute on fire. He only landed 400 meters (1200 feet) from where the plane impacted the ground, so this proves that he was waiting on his crewmember, and was thrown out of the plane. Paul Biri is still living in the U.S., and hopes to travel to Fraiture in 1999.
* 1st Lieutenant MacArty waited to open his chute until the altitude of 1,236 feet, and was found safe and sound where he landed at Sparmont.
* Sergeant Swain was the unfortunate parachutist who landed at Moulin, killed by the machine gun fire of the German fighter
* Tech Sergeant Jeffers returned to base * Lieutenant Procopio, the radio operator, with a ripped left chevron, burned face, and bullet wounds died at the military hospital in Liege.
* Staff Sergeant Hudson escaped unharmed and was taken to Liege, but we have no more details
* Captain Auer broke a leg during the jump, and was taken to the military hospital in Liege). He died in 1998 of kidney failure. He made it known that he was quite emotionally touched by the remembrances of the citizens of Fraiture.
* Lieutenant Rowe, co-pilot and tail-gunner of this lead plane, landed between Seny and Fraiture, nearly 10 kilometers from the point of impact of the plane, proving that he was one of the first to bail out.
Lieutenant Rowe had to climb out of the small tail gunner's compartment, where there was not enough room to wear a parachute, locate his parachute, and put it on. This means that he was probably not injured before he bailed out. The official Army Air Force report said "Dead, apparently killed by strafing."
His brother, Eldridge Rowe wrote to us on March 12 of last year, requesting to hear what precisely happened to his brother from those who were there, so he could accurately and correctly recite this event to his children.
Concerning this subject, we can affirm that Claude Rowe bailed out among the first to exit the plane, long before the plane exploded and disintegrated, which we witnessed in the sky in the direction of Rotheux.
When the German fighter approached, we saw the machine gun fire, and saw the result that it had on the parachutist. After this, it was clearly evident to all the witnesses that the descent of the parachute and parachutist was no longer normal. Pushed by a light North-East wind, the parachutist floated past the village of Rotheux to the outskirts of the town of Herberin.